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John Holbo

The Ones Who Take the Train to Omelas

by John Holbo on November 20, 2021

A couple years back I made a post about Le Guin’s “Omelas”. I teach it, and it’s been rattling around up there in the attic. I had this idea for a visual gag. And that led to a story, which led back to rethinking my story thoughts. I wrote a little essay. You can read the story and the essay here. And see the rest of the little pictures.

You know me. So I decided to do this thing: I gave Zarathustra a break and spent a week of evenings, and then a weekend, bashing out a complete Seussified adaptation of Over the Garden Wall – now, “Oh, the Garden Wall You’ll Go Over!” If you don’t know, Over the Garden Wall is a thoroughly charming animated series you should know. (And if you don’t know me, I’m the guy who does this sort of thing.)

I hope this gives some people some amusement.

And so forth.

A Great Day For Down! Done!

by John Holbo on August 19, 2021

I’ve been a neglectful Crooked Timberite – not keeping up old school blogging duties – but today I have something to share!

I’ve completed the initial story arc of “On Beyond Zarathustra”, consisting of “A Great Day For Down!” Parts 1 and 2. A mighty graphic novel, 120 pages! (More, when you add in fake “Peanuts”.) Please, feel free to check it out & share with anyone who might find it edifying or amusing.

I’ve been chipping away at the thing for years now. Goodness how time passes! (Comics is hard!)

I always wondered how Z could fly around, with his Eagle and Snake! I finally worked out the aerodynamics!

“Ye higher men, free the sepulchres, awaken the corpses! Ah, why doth the worm still burrow? There approacheth, there approacheth, the hour, — — There boometh the clock-bell, there thrilleth still the heart, there burroweth still the wood-worm, the heart-worm. Ah! Ah! THE WORLD IS DEEP!”

– F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So I ran another of those Twitterpoll thingies and it was decisive. Seven people voted, including one rubbernecker who likes to watch. And so the people have spoken! So I’m back to explaining jokes, like before. (Racking numbers like those, I should start a Nietzsche joke explanation Substack. Which is to say: webcomics is hard, kids. Like the King said, ‘comics will break your heart.’)

The questions was basically: what’s up with pages like this? [click to continue…]

So, I promised reflections on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Seuss, to complement my ongoing brilliant double-parody, with special reference to Seuss’ late ‘cancellation’ – the withdrawal of six books from publication. I did muse a bit on Twitter. The best metaphor for it is: Seuss is the Evergiven of kid’s lit. All right, I’ll resay it a bit.

Seuss: he’s so big, if he runs aground on something – like some racist drawings in If I Ran the Zoo – he’s tough to ‘refloat’. Seuss Inc. had a branding problem, therefore, with these old books. They are really old. It’s a testament to Seuss’ evergreen style that they still look graphically fresh enough that one is shocked that he let in the racist stuff.

So, as others have pointed out, it’s not exactly surprising that Seuss Inc. decided to spruce up the brand by clearing out old, off-brand stuff that isn’t spinning the dollars anyway.

Here is one point that has been missed in a lot of the discussions, back and forth. Namely, five out of the six books that have been ‘cancelled’ (except for The Cat’s Quizzer) follow the familiar Seuss ‘story within a story’ formula. It’s all happening in some lunatic kid’s head, after page 1 and before the last page. But this kid is adorably innocent, eager to grow and ‘go get ’em!’ so his dreams are harmless and no doubt he’ll grow up fine and strong, a pillar of his community! But when the kid is this sort of paradigm little white boy from the American suburbs, in the 50’s, the world from his point of view is obtrusively normed as the sort of place where HE is the center, rightfully. It’s all a show for him. It produces a sour Cecil Rhodes in shortpants mood when he’s off stripping the rest of the world of beasts and resources, to build whatever the hell he’s dreaming.

Obviously Seuss is, himself, poking fun at the kid, who has such stereotypical visions of ‘funny foreigners’ at his beck and call. But the fact that he’s poking fun doesn’t fix it.

A kid is small! A kid should be able to dream of conquest without being a threat to anyone.

But Seuss isn’t small. Seuss is huge.

So these white boy idle dreams of conquest run heavily aground in the canal of ‘National Reading Day’, also known as ‘Dr. Seuss Day’ (because it’s his birthday, March 2.) You can’t ask every kid in America, in 2021, to indulge a white reverie of conquering Africa or Asia or the Middle East, and having a bunch of natives as your servants. (In a sense, it’s just like Mr. Sneelock in If I Ran The Circus. In his dream, Morris McGurk imagines making Sneelock do all sorts of crazy stuff – ‘I’m sure he won’t mind.’ That’s funny. But it’s not funny if it gets crossed with ugly racial stereotypes. That’s just history, folks. The past isn’t the past.)

I think five of the six ‘cancelled’ Seuss books are harmless for kids of all sorts. Except for Zoo, which is way over the line, and it’s amazing it took this long to pull it. But once you are viewing Seuss that way, through an ‘is this iffy?’ lens, it’s not too surprising the other five got swept up, too, in the corporate image clean-up. It’s a shame. A lot of people have been like ‘who’s read these old minor Seuss titles?’ Well, I say Seuss was at the height of his graphical and inventive powers in the 50’s. These are his best books, in a lot of ways. McElligot’s Pool is the most beautifully done – the watercolors. On Beyond Zebra is super clever, and the Circus book is lonely without it’s racist friend, the Zoo book. What are you gonna do? (Reforming copyright law to let these old titles go would be good, but that ain’t gonna happen.)

Anyhoo, I’m going to talk about something else today. (But I really gotta write my magnum opus ‘Seuss cancelled?’ thumbsucker someday. Ideally, after everyone is so bored by the topic that only a few read it.) [click to continue…]

Hollow Nuts

by John Holbo on March 18, 2021

Now that I’m back, I should stick around. My discovery that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra started as ‘a Seuss book’ is pretty neat, I admit. But, it turns out, the surprises run in the other direction as well. A lot of famous comics started out as attempts to adapt Nietzsche’s great work into English – to popularize German metaphysics. These original Charles Schulz ‘woodcut comics’, for example. (Very rare. I’m working on ‘discovering’ a few more.) You can see a lot of Schulz’ later work already here, in seed form. (There was no money in it, and he said he got sick of carving the pearwood blocks to make the prints.)

On Beyond Zarathustra! (Seuss in the Nous)

by John Holbo on March 15, 2021

Hi, everyone, I’m back!

Shame on me, being away from CT so long. But I’ve been working on stuff. So here’s the deal! Some of you may remember how, back in the day, I did that “On Beyond Zarathustra” thing? And it just sort of … didn’t get done? Well, this time I’m going to do it right! Enjoy!

I’m gonna make a big splash for sure! (Webcomics are gonna be big, baby. Party like it’s 2008.) [click to continue…]

Backlash Politics

by John Holbo on May 31, 2020

Will Trump be able to make white backlash politics work for him re: riots?

The situation sure suits his vicious temperament. “Unlimited use of the military” against US citizens. I’m sure that’s what his hard-core base wants to hear. But does the ‘silent majority’ – a.k.a. enough white people in suburbs – want to hear it? Will enough of them watch the news and think ‘holy shit, those people are out of control and we need law and order. Maybe that cop went too far but they arrested him. These riots show sometimes you gotta get rough.’ Or will more of them start to think, ‘a vicious culture of cop impunity, capped off by plainly unconstitutional qualified immunity and deliberate gutting of civil rights protections by right-wing judicial activists and the Trump administration have finally come to this.’ [click to continue…]


by John Holbo on May 28, 2020

OK, I’m really trying not to do the long Twitter thread thing. But let’s start from a tweet.

Rush Limbaugh is a moral monster, of course. ‘Demeritorous’ would be the word. But it’s interesting to think about the semantic fate of ‘moralizing’.

Limbaugh is using the term to mean ‘getting on your high horse’, ‘morally grandstanding’. Now: it is not true that, if someone is sitting on their moral high horse, that gives you a license to torture innocent 3rd parties, and cause them gratuitous pain, as Limbaugh supposes. But it is also interesting that this familiar, derogatory sense of ‘moralize’ isn’t even in the OED, although Google definitions catches it at the primary sense. [click to continue…]

Our Ontologies, Our Selves

by John Holbo on May 26, 2020

I need to establish better Twitter/Blog balance in my life. I switched over to Twitter because the kids know where it’s at. This Twitter joint is hopping and bopping. I do feel Twitter has been good for my writing style. That sounds strange. But I have these terrible, more or less Montaignean habits of starting in one place, arcing around, seemingly aimlessly, only to return to the one place. That’s not good, academic prose. And it doesn’t work on Twitter, so I’m forced to cut down. It has its literary charms, my loopy prose stye, but, late in life, I’ve decided I need to get better control over it. I should rule it, not it me! Yet long twitter threads, even if they are direct in their way, are such a mockery of literary form. Like serving a pint of beer in a long row of eyedroppers. So I’m swearing off the long stuff, on Twitter. So I’d better get back here to CT.

Right, to get back started in a traditional way, I’m going to complain about Rod Dreher, like it’s Old Home Week. (Just so you know I may be on Twitter now, but I haven’t changed.) It must seem strange I’m so fixated on Dreher, but, fact is, sometimes he looks to me like sort of my mirror universe opposite. Frequently he will report he’s reading authors I’ve read. We see the same things, just opposite-style. Today it’s Modris Eksteins. I read his Rites of Spring years ago and was really excited by it. Good book. Dreher likes it because he thinks it will help him shift the charge that he’s just too fussed about sex. [click to continue…]

I’ve been working through David Estlund’s new book, Utopophobia [google books]. His work has changed my thinking in a lot of ways, mostly because I don’t usually think like him. So, when I realized I thought he was right about some things, it kind of spun me round. But in this post I’m going to talk about something else – another topic I’ve been mulling for years and meaning to turn into a paper at some point. The place of whimsy in thought-experiments.

As you know, my flesh is weak, so I’m on Twitter now. Today I meant just to riff on one funny, absurdist-tinged example from Estlund. But he’s got so many and I couldn’t help myself. It’s Lewd-and-Prude all over again, just like in the old days when there were blogs.

The issue is this: whimsy is – well, it’s not an emotion, I don’t suppose. It’s an attitude. More exactly, it’s a mode or manner of being detached. But it’s not a full, nor neutral style of detachment. It’s not the view from nowhere. It’s not action-oriented. But that doesn’t make it pan-observant or unfeeling. It’s perpetually tickled; it’s preferentially attendant to certain things, as opposed to others. (It knows you can’t just tickle yourself. Something else has to do it.)

The concern is that this makes it stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. [click to continue…]

Ersatz Better Angels?

by John Holbo on December 4, 2019

Thanks for the good comments on yesterday’s post. Today, a brief follow-up. A discerning FB correspondent remarked I should have made the connection with my previous post – from way back in May! O, bad blogger am I – about my so-called ‘steelwool scrub’ fallacy.

These are both real, similar, they overlap, yet seem semi-distinct. Or perhaps the two ways of bringing it out just bring out different aspects of the same process. Hmmm. [click to continue…]

Vavilovian Philosophical Mimicry

by John Holbo on December 3, 2019

It’s been months since I posted! I’ve migrated to twitter. (The flesh is weak – but feel free to follow me!)

I’m going to try to start doing the sane thing. Long posts at CT, like God’s infinite mind intended. Short thoughts on Twitter, like humanity’s mayfly attention span tolerates.

Today I propose a new term in political theory. Vavilovian philosophical mimicry! [click to continue…]

The Steelwool Scrub – A Fallacy

by John Holbo on May 7, 2019

This case is picture-perfect for making a simple point in debates about religious liberty: ‘sincere religious belief’ is not a ‘get out of bigotry free’ card. It is no carte blanche defense (legal or moral).

The man is nothing if not religiously sincere. Anyone who wasn’t would have kept his mouth shut, not blurted the following: [click to continue…]

Notes on Peterson, Shapiro, Facts, Feelings

by John Holbo on March 10, 2019

I teach Plato’s Meno. I emphasize that, despite it being a hard dialogue, Meno, the guy, isn’t hard to size up. ‘Virtue’ is success. Meno is a get-ahead guy. Are some guys born with it, do you get it by practice, is there intellectual secret sauce? I talk to my students about self-help books. What good, do you think, can a book like How To Win Friends and Influence People do you?

You can read my commentary chapter on Meno here. There’s quite a bit of self-help stuff in it. (You can always buy my book on Amazon! [Associates link.])

Since this is my angle, I should keep up with the self-help scene, shouldn’t I? But, I confess, I didn’t keep tabs on the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson. At first, when I heard folks complaining, I thought: stern Canadian Jungian? Sweet Tiamat in Toronto, sounds Abzulutely fabulous! Like the premise for a Guy Madden film.

Recently I tried to find time to familiarize myself better. Let me share with you a bit from one exchange that struck me as especially … well, yes, funny. It’s from a 2-hour episode of the Rubin Report, from November 30, 2018. It’s Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin talking “religion, trans activism, censorship, the IDW and more.” (Hey. I study the metaphysics of self-help literature. I gotta dance with the one what brung me.)

Round about minute 52 it runs sort of like this. (Very rough transcript, not word-for-word. but I’ve tried to be fair, not omitting anything that changes the sense. You can check it against audio. If I have made transcription errors or left out any detail that changes the sense, I will correct.) [click to continue…]